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Portsmouth College: co-designing a digital transformation journey with learners

Emily PountneyChris WoodGemma Conway

In 2012, Portsmouth College embarked on a co-constructed journey of digital transformational change in partnership with students and the community. 


We wanted to improve every aspect of our work and to achieve an impact on recruitment, achievement, the quality of holistic education and the student experience using an ask, analyse, implement, evaluate (AAIE) approach, and share the learning with our sector through twice-yearly, free open days.

In 2012, the then principal, Steve Frampton (Association of Colleges president 2018-20) interviewed more than 500 prospective, current and former students aged 14-19 and asked them: “What do you want? Design your own FE experience and evidence your asks.”

Student responses were consistent in 96% of cases. 


Students wanted to be very well prepared to make their way in the world. Digital skills were seen as important regardless of the courses they were following.


Students wanted to see the improvement of both the environment of the college and the city. The later start to the day addressed emissions by reducing the number of cars during peak times and the streamlined timetable also meant students didn’t make repeated journeys and didn’t need to attend every day.

The 1-to-1 iPad scheme also allows students to learn independently away from the classroom, as they can access both materials and teaching to fit in with their busy lives, responsibilities and commitments.

This fundamentally changed the perception of the learning environment both in and outside of college, and significantly contributed to the climate change targets for the city.


Students wanted learning to be more engaging, with more fun and less stress. They wanted to be treated with respect and for the working patterns of the college to support them in managing their lives as a whole.

They appealed for a compact day and a later start time and the removal of trapped time in the timetable. 

Stakeholder views

We also asked stakeholders across the city – head teachers, our MP, councillors and business leaders what they really wanted and needed from FE. They highlighted the attributes that would support the employability of our young people: positive, hard-working, optimistic, flexible and punctual; collaborative workers, with good data analysis and communication skills who were problem solvers, and critical thinkers with strong digital skills.

All change for the timetable

Old timetable:

  • Six option blocks across the week
  • Five lessons a day
  • 8.30am start
  • Trapped time for students
  • Limited enrichment activities during trapped time
  • Not fully fit for purpose to meet study programme requirements and wellbeing

New timetable:

  • Five option blocks
  • Two lessons a day with a 10am start
  • No trapped time for students
  • Extensive enrichment opportunities
  • Supports meeting study programme requirements, wellbeing and improved learning

These changes were based on the best internationally available research, latest scientific evidence and best practice with leading UK and global employers. We were the first UK institution to implement this innovative, co-constructed 'late start, compact day’ timetable model. The model featured in the bestselling business leadership book by Chris Lewis, Too Fast to Think, and is now increasingly used in the UK, Japan and USA.

Phase two - the curious and creative learning project

With the radically new and popular timetable, we saw the opportunity to transform the way we designed learning and gave opportunities for students to work creatively, collaboratively and independently.

Our vision was always one of a collective learning journey within a learning institution. We were determined to build trust and a culture of innovation and experimentation as the central tenet of the project.

Moving to the new timetable empowered staff to innovate in their design of learning, but we wanted to go further. We wanted the teachers and learners at the college to have access to the very best learning tools, wherever and whenever they needed them.

iPad 1-1 programme

Our research was supported by our community. We networked, through one of our parent governors, with a local Apple distinguished school, which outlined how it had achieved gains in achievement and engagement through use of an iPad in the hands of every learner.

We crafted our vision for using the mobility of the iPad to expand learning beyond the walls of the classroom, to give students and staff the opportunity to use a range of creative tools and to increase collaboration and flexibility through new digital platforms.

Training for staff

95% of front-facing teaching staff have achieved Apple teacher status. Staff develop their digital skills through regular training sessions from Apple professional learning specialists, bespoke workshops from our Apple distinguished educator and our own learning champions as well as regular teaching and learning community meetings.

INSET sessions are fresh and innovative. As an example, when all staff became students for the day, teachers experienced first hand how students learn and engage in an iPad-driven lesson, allowing them to reflect on their own practice and to adapt and change.

Training for students and student ambassadors 

We recruited a large group of Apple ambassadors, who received training from Apple professional learning specialists. Apple ambassadors assisted other students and staff with the use of the technology and were a key factor in the success, as students are curious and natural users of technology.

This further developed their digital literacy skills, enhancing their employability skills as well as providing an ‘in class’ student expert for staff. Apple ambassadors continue via our E6 programme where young people work with staff, students and partner schools, led by our Apple distinguished educator.

Infrastructure development

Our IT infrastructure needed a complete refresh to support all students and staff using mobile devices so we rebuilt our entire network infrastructure during the summer holidays. We had basic wireless coverage at the time and needed to ramp this up significantly, averaging one access point per two classrooms.

We also overhauled our firewall and filtering policies, allowing staff to be curious and creative but not be faced with technical barriers through restriction, as well as increasing our internet connection from 100Mbps circuit to 1Gbps; we now regularly see usage of 400Mbps. With the start of lockdown in March, staff and students were well placed to continue providing engaging remote learning using their iPad.

Phase three - skills for the digital economy (2015)

We created E6, working with Unloc, a student-led social enterprise, to embed provision into students’ study programmes that actively enhances their work readiness, builds digital skill sets and presents students with a pathway to employment. Students can develop skills valued by employers and higher education, as well as increasing their digital literacy.

E6 has revolutionised our student progression. In 2017, OFSTED recognised the contribution this provision was having on our students.

"Students benefit from attending the college, flourish and become more confident, articulate and purposeful." 

Evaluation: did anyone get left behind?

Key to the project was that no one, student, staff or partners, were left behind and everyone became a learner in this co-constructed, inclusive culture of fun and learning. Phase one of the project was the transformational timetable. This increased attendance by 6%.

The impact of the timetable was also highlighted by OFSTED in 2017, which said:

"Enterprising and innovative changes to the timetable have helped to focus student learning and are improving attendance." 

98.7% of students over the five-year period 2013- 2018 cited this as the main reason for their improved attendance, wellbeing, improved learning and skills, and progression opportunities. Staff loved it as much!

The implementation of the 1:1 iPad scheme in 2014 has seen an improvement in the overall student pass rate and the narrowing of the attainment gap both between genders and between disadvantaged and advantaged students, at both Level 2 and 3.

In GCSE English, the pass rate increased from 40% to 70%. Innovation is a cornerstone of the project, with the development of digital skills for staff and students being paramount. In 2014, 88% of staff did not use their iPad in every lesson due to limited skill and confidence. By 2016, 72% of staff identified themselves as a confident or a mastery level user.

In 2020, the department-level student voice demonstrated that iPads were used in almost all lessons with flipped learning embedded in the teaching and learning ethos of the college.

Jisc’s head of FE and Skills, Paul McKean said:

“An excellent example of how the effective use of technology can transform pedagogy and improve learning outcomes”  

This work has been recognised at the highest level, including with the Jisc/AoC Beacon Award 2017 for the effective use of technology in FE.

In 2019, we were awarded the status of Apple distinguished school in recognition of our innovation and excellence in the use of iPads to enhance learning and outcomes for our students. We continue to share our learning journey, and you can read our book on the Apple Book Store.

Challenges and opportunities in the new normal 

With the start of lockdown in March, staff and students were well placed to continue providing engaging remote learning using their iPad. For example:

  • Using video communication to introduce the lesson in person, alongside Google Hangouts for students to ask questions, creating personal interactions, which is an essential means of supporting the mental health of students at this time.
  • Google Classroom is being used in more creative ways by breaking up activities into manageable chunks. Students have also been paired up using Google Meet, where they then answer exam questions collaboratively using Google Docs, sharing understanding and knowledge.
  • In practical subjects, teachers are increasingly turning to video. Uploading videos of professional dancers, actors and sportspeople as models for student analysis and as well as using TikTok to share evidence of the development of individual skills.
  • The principles of change that have supported us since 2012, such as student and staff voice, have guided us into remote learning. Our emphasis is on enhancing communication across the community using digital tools, increasing opportunities for staff to share and supporting the development of skills as a team.
  • Teachers have embraced the opportunity to innovate as they look for more ways to engage and inspire. Sharing ideas, offering support and good practice remotely has been central to this with our creation of the Portsmouth College Digital Learning website.

Experience in recent years has taught us:

  • Change is best embraced with students and staff – co-constructing learning experiences
  • A common technology platform can enable an equity of access to learning
  • Students can work harder and learn more independently if they have access to the best tools
  • Staff enjoy phases of innovation and can drive learning in amazing ways with technology
  • Technology can spark creativity in every area of college and community life
  • The teacher’s voice in the delivery of learning and feedback remains the most powerful tool we have, amplified by technology when co-constructed with our learners 

This article is part of an e-book produced by the Association of Colleges and funded by Ufi, called Creating a post-Covid19 EdTech Strategy, bringing together all the wisdom and lessons learned from lockdown.